All of television’s baddest witches are on FX’s American Horror Story: Coven. But fans of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s funhouse know that the series cornered the market on strong women in its first season, and has only been focusing its approach since. American Horror Story, more than any other prestige TV show on the air right now, is driven by women. The stories bend to their personalities, and to the strengths of the actresses behind the characters. Coven manifests this best, most completely, but the show has been moving in this direction since the beginning.
I hadn’t really conceived of American Horror Story in this way until Madeleine Davies, of Jezebel, wrote about compulsively watching the second season despite the terrible harm it visits on its female characters. Her writing allowed me to occupy a different perspective watching the show—I was watching from a horror fan’s perspective, initially—and I saw that the dearth of strong women on many of the best television shows was being quietly handled by Jessica Lange, Connie Britton, Taissa Farmiga, Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, and Lily Rabe, just to name a few. I say quietly because the show is so loud in other ways—in its willingness to transgress, to acknowledge the boundaries of good taste and then have, you know, Santa Claus vomit blood onto the other side. Stuff like that can prove distracting, even when the characters, in between killing sprees, talk of rights for women and the gay community.
In the first season, Murder House, Dylan McDermott’s Dr. Ben Harmon has the resolve of damp laundry, and about the same level of appeal. It’s Connie Britton, Taissa Farmiga, Lily Rabe, and Jessica Lange’s show. The women have the power (and the evil babies). The second season, Asylum, pushed this further by bringing Jessica Lange into the central position, letting her shine brighter, scarier, nastier, sexier—everything. (American Horror Story is nothing if not excessive.) As Sister Jude, Lange grappled with the holy and the carnal like she was remaking Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus as a one-woman show. Still, Asylum rounded out its cast with Zachary Quinto’s Dr. Thredson, James Cromwell’s Dr. Arden, Joseph Fiennes’s Monsignor Howard, and, of course, Evan Peters’s Kit Walker. Peters has been with the show since the first episode, bringing boyishness and violence wherever he goes. He’s cool; he gets a pass.
Because women so thoroughly dominate Coven, this season is feeling like the show American Horror Story was always meant to be. Three episodes in, and there’s no swinging dick strong enough to square off against even the show’s youngest witch.
Who are the men? There’s the butler with the bad Kid-Rock-has-narrowly-survived-a-house-fire hair. He can’t speak.
There’s the bus full of gang-raping frat bros. Thankfully, they’re all dead.
There’s the one reanimated frat brother with a heart of gold (Peters’ Kyle Spencer), and he’s literally been magically assembled by Madison (Emma Roberts) and Zoe (Farmiga) from the parts of dead boys. He can’t speak either.
There’s Marie Laveau’s (Angela Bassett) bull toy. He can only stomp and snort.
And don’t forget Cordelia Foxx’s (Sarah Paulson) husband. In one of the show’s most brilliant moves, he appears in the second episode with no introduction, popping up like the underdeveloped wife of some male anti-hero. It’s a television trope to keep the one-dimensional woman waiting in the wings. On American Horror Story, like a bitchslap to the face of sexist TV, that character happens to be a hubby.
Who are the women? Jessica Lange’s head witch Fiona Goode blows lines of coke and vamps to Iron Butterfly, just one moment of greatness from a potentially career-capping performance as a woman who refuses to get old. It’s Jessica Lange playing a hyperbolic version of Jessica Lange, refusing to go quietly into that good night. If it’s too loud, you’re too old, and Lange is going to make us all deaf tearing through the screen like this. It’s great.
As Cordelia, Fiona’s daughter, Sarah Paulson is resourceful and full of grace, as viewers have come to expect from the actress in her third season with the show. She runs the finishing school for young witches. Most of the show’s best moments come from the Hogwarts-by-way-of-Heathers interplay between the students: Madison, Zoe, Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and Nan (Jamie Brewer).
The other stand-outs share exactly one quality: They’re all crazy rogues. Kathy Bates’ evil Delphine LaLaurie crying at the sight of President Obama is hideous and hilarious. Fun, too. Nothing finer than comparing troglodyte racist decriers of our president to those recently removed from boxes buried far underground.
I don’t have words for Lily Rabe’s Misty Day. The closest I can come to approximating it would be to recreate the scene in School of Rock, where Joan Cusack’s character goes publically mental listening to “Edge of Seventeen.”
Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau is the most difficult character for me to talk about, as Coven is the thorniest season in the show’s history, ideologically speaking. Having her voodoo priestess character hold court in a beauty salon is maybe too loaded for good sense. The show is walking a tightrope, wrestling with racism and slavery in America at a time when virtually all of pop culture is thinking about representations of black men and women. Whether American Horror Story achieves something truthful as it follows these stories, or winds up on the receiving end of a damning appropriation allegation, remains to be seen. I’m hopeful. The show is doing powerful work with sexual violence. Kyle struck mute and with a body he no longer recognizes as his own while his mother molests him is a gut-wrenching depiction of sexual abuse, to say nothing of the trauma of the first episode’s gang-rape.
For sure it’s going to be scary watching the rest of the season unfold. Here’s to those scares being the kind Murphy and his team intend.
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)